The Original “Ugly American”

By Holmes

When we here the term “ugly American” most of us think of stereotypes of rude insensitive American tourists blundering their way through highly choreographed, eight country, seven-day tours across Europe. The stereotype may be unfair, but, unfortunately, the worst visitors to any country make the strongest impressions.

Long before middle-aged American retirees from the 1960s started flying to Paris to board those European torture tour buses, one American set a standard for “unwelcome tourist” that has yet to be surpassed by even the loudest of American visitors to European Art Museums or the drunkest of American college students on Caribbean beaches.

In 1853 (five years after the end of the Mexican American War) a young lawyer from Tennessee named William Walker decided that he liked northwestern Mexico. He was so fond of it that he decided it would be a nice place to set up a kingdom for himself. Walker traveled to Guaymas, Mexico and patiently explained to the Mexican government that it would be a great idea for him to set up a “buffer zone” in northern Mexico (to be ruled by him) in order to protect the US from raids by Indians who operated from bases in Mexico. The Mexicans failed to see the beauty of Walker’s plan and declined his generous offer to take over the border region. Walker was undeterred.

Walker returned to the US and recruited about 45 devout members of the Church of Manifest Destiny. No such church existed, but that did nothing to dissuade the obviously faithful members of that adventurous religion.

William Walker

In October 1853, Walker and his followers traveled to Baja, California to set up a base for their conquest of the Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora, Mexico. Perhaps if he had been able to recruit a full hundred followers, they might have simply tried to take all of Mexico.

On October 15, 1853, Walker managed to capture La Paz in Baja California. To the few sleepy villagers who might have heard, Walker proudly proclaimed himself President of Lower California and Sonora. Walker declared that the region would forthwith follow the legal system of Louisiana. This (according to Walker and his band of lunatics) made slavery legal in the region.

Few people heard, and no one outside his party agreed. In what must have been a rare moment of lucidity, Walker realized that he was a long way from the United States and moved his “capital” further north to Ensenada, Mexico. After a few weeks, enough Mexican authorities became aware of Walker’s presence in Baja California and began to organize a response. Upon realizing that the Mexican government would muster a force of men consisting of something more than 45 angry, armed Mexicans, Walker retreated to the United States. Unfortunately for both us and them, Walker made good his escape.

Once the US government became aware of Walker’s invasion of Mexico, he was arrested and put on trial in California. However, in the political climate of the time, the jurors thought that Walker’s invasion of Mexico was reasonable, and, to the dismay of the federal prosecutor and the judge, he was acquitted within a few minutes of jury deliberation. As is often the case, politics trumped law.

About now, any reasonable reader would expect me to finish the story with an explanation of how Walker counted his blessings and settled down in California to farm kumquats or lettuce. But no, the story actually takes a turn for the worse.

In 1854 a civil war broke out in Nicaragua between some not very liberal “liberals” called “Democrats” and some not very conservative conservatives called “Legitimists.” Back then, Nicaragua mattered to the United States. There was no Panama Canal, and the US congress had not yet sold its collective (small and dingy) soul to the railroad companies for the building of a transcontinental railroad. The easiest route from The US eastern seaboard to California was by way of ship to Nicaragua, up to Lake Nicaragua, followed by a stagecoach ride to the pacific coast, and then another sailing ship journey up to San Francisco.

Not one to avoid trouble, Walker quickly insinuated himself into the crisis. The liberal Democratic president of Nicaragua, Francisco Castellon, signed an agreement with Walker that allowed him to bring three hundred “colonists” from the United States. Walker’s three hundred “colonists” would then join the fight and rescue Castellon from the evil clutches of the “Legitimists”.

Walker had difficulty finding enough idiots willing to place their lives in his not very God-like hands, and he showed up in Nicaragua with 60 mercenaries. The Democrats gave Walker an additional force of nearly three hundred men. On September 4, 1855 Walker defeated an equally badly led Legitimist force at the Battle of La Virgen.

On December 13, 1855 Walker managed to capture the Legitimist Capitol at Granada, Nicaragua. Walker managed to keep control of the Nicaraguan Army (such as it was) and ruled the country through a puppet President by the name of Patricio Rivas.

Walker began to preach a sort of “slavery theology” and explained that he was going to liberate neighboring Central Americans from their ignorant, non-slave trading governments. It turned out that most of the locals had no interest in receiving any political blessings from Walker, and Central America began to organize itself to oust Walker from Nicaragua. Walker appealed to wealthy slave owners in the southern United States and received financial support from them.

In March of 1856, Walker sent an Army to Costa Rica and it was promptly defeated by Costa Rica. In July of 1856, after a quick, Chicago-style election, Walker was inaugurated as the President of Nicaragua. He instituted an “Americanization” plan. He declared English the official language, repealed the emancipation law, and arranged for the massive migration of Americans to Nicaragua for the eventual “reorganization” of Central America as a slave plantation zone. Central Americans were not altogether certain as to who would be the slaves and who would be the slave owners, and they decided that they did not wish to have the region converted to a giant, Louisiana style slave plantation.

On December 14, 1856, besieged by four thousand Guatemalans and Salvadorans, Walker and his followers set fire to the old capital of Granada and managed to escape to Lake Nicaragua. He surrendered to an US Navy commander who forgot to throw him overboard in the dark of night and was repatriated to New York City.

Upon his arrival in New York City, Walker published a book that explained why the US Navy was responsible for his defeat in Nicaragua. The fact that the US Navy had not been involved in the fighting apparently didn’t influence Walker’s version of history. Now you are likely hoping that I tell you that he dies from a falling Piano, chokes on a bagel or quietly settles down as a tailor on Delancey Street and is never again heard from. Sorry, the story isn’t over yet.

In 1860 Walker accepted an invitation from some sleazy British land owners in Honduras to help them take over Honduras. Fortunately for Honduras (and everyone else), the British navy had been informed of Walker’s plans. Forces led by Captain Neville Salmon of the British navy captured Walker and promptly turned him over to the Honduran government. The Hondurans did what I wish someone would have done to him on his eighteenth birthday. They shot him.

As strange as Walker’s misadventures sound to us today, he was not completely unusual for his time. The word “filibuster” originally referred not to a congressman using delaying tactics to block legislation, but to adventurous Americans from southern slave states who wanted to set up new slave states south of the US Border all the way to Argentina. The admission of Texas to the Union is, in fact, an example of the “filibuster” philosophy.

While William Walker and his pals are, for the most part, unknown to people north of the Rio Grande River, many Central Americans remember him as an example of American aggression. Even though he acted against the wishes of the US government, and he was clearly part of a small minority, his actions and the support of his fellow filibusters helped form Central America’s view of the United States.

If any of you should have occasion to visit Latin America, in the interest of good international relations, please be polite and resist any temptation to declare yourself president of any republics that you happen to be visiting.

Please feel free to share any other travel tips.

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12 comments on “The Original “Ugly American”

  1. EllieAnn says:

    Oh geez, the nerve of that guy! An interesting story, though…very well told.

  2. i col samuel zeus clemons, of the ferret militia will do my best to tweet this… apparantly, piper went out of town, and forgot that part… i remember reading about Walker in an old copy of American Heritage .. remember those, Holmes? this was the beaten hard copy edition from the 50’s or 60’s. a veritable treasure trove of short stories, nicely illustrated. talk about book ideas? one could just take those tid bits, do some research and make some fine story tellin thereby. ol walker was a character. kinda like the crackpot Roosevelt sent down to Panama to take over that country … ha! another tale worth telling… i have to go off and make fun of True Blood.. adios

    • J H says:

      Thank you for tweeting us Samuel. I do not remember that series. I think yiu are right about producing articles about interesting anecdotes. I have read a few fun books of that genre. I have been researching the whole Panama canal saga for an article.

  3. Texanne says:

    I hereby claim for myself and my heirs and supporters all the lands contained within the Northridge Fashion Center, including but not limited to the stores, the Apple store, the cinema, the parking structure, and the Claim Jumper restaurant located in the north east quadrant of the open parking area.

    Just call me Empress Texanne.

    It will not be a slave state, or then again it might be, depending on your view of current fashion and heedless consumerism.

    Funny post, thanks. I never heard of this guy. Would he be played by Nicholas Cage in the movie?

    • Where would I hang out if you claim that little piece of property? 😉 You live near there? This is so cool. Step away from Macy’s. The Borders and the See’s Candy are also free territories. 🙂

    • J H says:

      O K Empress Texanne.. I won’t defend the borders of a mall.or a Casino. D H S has a very large budget and they never seem to be busy so I can’t promise that they won’t take issue with your plan.

      Things in my country are rough these days. Would the kingdom of Nortridge Fashion Center mind sending us a little foreign aid? Please? Pretty please? If you refuse we will transport all our max security inmates to your parking lot and release them.

  4. I think that Americans are considered arrogant because of the citizens’ disregard to how the natives what the natives consider valuable. Among them are respect for the elderly (things we consider to be good manners anyway), making resources last as long as possible, leave things the condition it was in before using them.

    I mean, these are some complaints I could see. I did got into trouble a couple of times from family members by acting “American”. What Americans consider freedom of expression, other cultures consider rude. In Asian countries, it’s better to err on the side of shyness and quietness than on the side of being outspoken.

    • Texanne says:

      Conquering a small country–if only in your own mind–is rude. And, well, odd.

      I think it is also rude for foreign countries to spend all their time criticizing us rather than fixing their own problems. Sure, the world hates us, and lots of days I hate it right back. But you let something bad start happening, and Bam! the world starts calling for us to fix it. If we don’t fix it fast enough, or go big enough with the fix, then they criticize us some more. And then, if we do fix it, they’re irked because we did. Somehow fairness and honesty don’t figure into the operating systems of most countries.

      So, is the Borders still open? I had heard they were closing.

      Tell you what–you can have the mall (though I will maintain my embassy at the Apple store) and I’ll take the marina at Ventura Harbor. Deal? 🙂

      • I haven’t checked the Borders though I was at the mall just last month. We came there too early trying to make it to the farmer’s market. I heard that Borders closing rumor, too. It’s only a matter of time.

        We have a deal. I’ll take the mall you get the marina and the Apple Store. 🙂

  5. J H says:

    Hi Marilag. Thanks for your post. Not all foreigners hate us. But I get your point.

    Which “Asian” countries do you mean? Japan for example only began to learn respect for other Asians during the American occupation after world war two. Before then Japanese children were raised to believe that all foreigners were from an inferior species. Even after a half century of intense propaganda by the Chinese communist party Americans are still far more welcome in China than Japanese people are.

    Asia is a big place and the cultures are very diverse.

    But to your point, yes a few morons like William Walker can do a lot of damage.

    • Philippines. We’re a part of Asia as much as Japan (it’s also a bunch of islands in the Pacific). Our culture was heavily influenced by the Chinese (Philippines had been trading with China before the Europeans began their exploration). China is slightly above us. However, because Spain occupied the for three hundred years (then the Americans), Pilipinos in the island still have the colonial mentality. Those in the island thinks that foreigners are better (even though they make a lot of mess and tends to be rude).

  6. Texanne says:

    FWIW, a lot of us felt pretty awful about the way we left the Philippines. It was six kinds of wrong.

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